The full title of the Radiodays North America panel is Electrification, Autonomous, and Screenification: Radio’s Future in the Car. Moderated by Jacobs Media president Fred Jacobs, radio programming’s most prominent participant in the connected car discussion, the focus is radio’s in-car user experience. “Given how drivers move from platform to platform in cars, it’s essential FM radio looks as good—if not better—than satellite radio, streaming services, and podcasts,” Jacobs says. He’ll be joined by Quu’s Laura Gonzo, CBC’s Julie McCambley, and Brian Comiskey of the Consumer Technology Association, producer of CES. 

For American making the journey to Toronto on June 8-9, any discussion of radio’s future in the car begins with the currently raging discussion of AM radio’s future. Even after Ford’s decision to include AM radio in 2024 cars, there are still holdouts, and all those decisions are seen as a stalking horse for all of broadcast radio’s future in cars. That prompts a discussion of whether radio has the vision and unity to reorganize the dial itself, certain to be a topic at another RDNA panel, Radio, Can You Handle the Truth?

AM broadcasters are fighting a transition that has already taken place to varying degrees elsewhere. In Australia and the UK, a competitive digital tier has made the fate of actual AM frequencies less of an issue. But even in Canada, many AM stations have already transitioned to the FM dial outside the most crowded major markets. Some have been granted frequencies on a less crowded FM dial, but recently, N/T CHQR Calgary, Alberta, followed the lead of similar American outlets, taking over the frequency of a Classic Rock sister FM.

In-car usage is one of the Audio Megatrends that Edison Research President Larry Rosin and Director of Research Laura Ivey will address at RDNA. Ivey’s advice for all broadcasters is to “leverage new dashboard technology to aid in the discoverability of AM/FM radio, not just individual stations, but the whole medium. They need to understand why it’s different and why it is valuable,” particularly when radio loses its advantage in ease of use.

Ivey believes that AM broadcasters can protect themselves by continuing to “excel at the things that make AM unique—local information, crisis relief, providing a voice for smaller communities—and then publicizing it. How are communities supposed to find out about AM radio? Tell them.”

I posed similar questions to Facebook friends. Some still see the future of AM (or radio overall) as tied to programming issues—spotload, a focus on one sort of news/talk, the relative lack of actual local content outside times of weather emergency. One programmer suggests handing AM over to high-school and college broadcasters. A reader says the AM stations in his market often “seem to be operating as afterthoughts to their FM sisters. I constantly hear dead air, two audio channels playing at the same time, way too many spots, and an overall sloppiness in presentation.” 

But a surprising number of Ross on Radio readers were in agreement with NERW publisher Scott Fybush. “To AM broadcasters: after a century, you’re in the end game. It’s time to make sure your programming is on other platforms that will be accessible to listeners, whether that’s translators, HD2s or a unified streaming platform.” One reader called for the FCC to “repack the FM band” to accommodate more AM to FM transitions. 

Among other similar comments:

  • “Ford has probably done their homework. If there were actual demand for AM radio, it wouldn’t be deleted.
  • “I assume the eight-track, cassette, and CD manufacturers had no such lobbying power . . . people decide what technology they like and use, not politicians.”
  • “AM radio is 111 years old. Some things need to be let go. My proposal would be to sunset AM stations with FM translators as an option, and then make the translators protected signals”
  • “My AM station got its license 90 years ago today. Embrace your streaming ability, process your stream just as you would the over-the-air signal, broadcast compelling content, and be a resource your community relies upon.”
  • “If you own or operate an AM station, make sure you have an app so those cars deleting AM will still [allow] the option of tuning in your station on Apple CarPlay or the Android platform.”
  • “If you do have that app, make sure it actually works, and doesn’t do things like repeat content in an endless loop, not come back on time from commercials or [incorrectly] tell you that you’re out of the listening area.” (This was not the only comment about apps not working.)
  • “Radio needs a killer universal app that is used by all radio. Unfortunately, different apps are spread across too many companies.” 
  • “This will sound crazy, but AM needs to shut off its analog audio and go full digital. Then create compelling local and ideally live content. Finally, use guerilla marketing tactics. After all this, I would still stream, because not everybody to get the HD signal, and eventually you’ll want to sell the land the tower is on.”

I reached out to veteran broadcaster Bobby Rich recently retired as co-owner/PD of KDRI (The Drive) Tucson, Ariz., an AM/FM translator combo that found local success and a national following with an emphasis on locality (and an older/broader mix of classic hits). Rich doesn’t know what percentage of his listening is on AM, but says, “Since day one, KDRI has received comments about finding the station on AM while driving around rural areas. Or listeners are out of our range and haven’t realized they could hook up an app in their vehicle.

“A surprisingly high number of folks have said they like having music to listen to on AM, without explaining what that means. Others have actually said ‘this is the way it’s supposed to sound because this is the way it sounded when we first heard the songs.’”

My thoughts about the future of AM are in a separate article this week. I’m concerned about the consolidation of radio stations and lack of choice that a further decline of AM entails, as well as the likely disproportionate impact on independent and minority broadcasters. But I see the protection of AM as part of the larger battle, and as an impetus to unify behind that killer app and organize all of broadcasters’ offerings. What are your thoughts?

See the full RDNA schedule here.

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